Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Michelle Obama Plants Kitchen Garden For Spring: Boxed Beds, Beets...And A Book

Michelle Obama gets a surprise in the Kitchen Garden...and she surprises the world with some historic news...
On Wednesday afternoon, First Lady Michelle Obama welcomed two dozen fourth and fifth graders to the White House to help her re-plant the Kitchen Garden for Spring. It was the day before St. Patrick's Day, and the weather in Washington was doing a good imitation of Irish vagaries: Sunny and bright one moment, gray and wet the next. (Above: Mrs. Obama, Kass, and kids in the garden)

The South Lawn was muddy and slick as Mrs. Obama actually jogged down from the White House to meet up with the kids who were gathered garden-side, seated at picnic tables covered with red and white checked table clothes. But the weather held: It was cloudy and breezy, but there was no rain. The White House chefs, led by Executive Chef Cristeta Comerford, stood at attention along the edge of the garden, clad in chefs whites and blue aprons.

Sam Kass, Mrs. Obama's Senior Policy Advisor for Healthy Food Initiatives, had prepped the kids for the First Lady's arrival, explaining to them what was going to be planted, and which chefs they'd be paired with (at left). As she strode up to the tables, the First Lady was greeted with cheers by the kids, who were from DC's Bancroft Elementary and Harriet Tubman Elementary Schools. Bancroft has been sending kid helpers to Mrs. Obama since she first broke ground for the Kitchen Garden on March 20, 2009.

"We’re excited to have you guys. We rely on you all so much to get all this done, because look how much we have to plant," Mrs. Obama said as she greeted the young gardeners.

Tubman is a newer White House partner: The school was adopted last September by the White House chefs under Mrs. Obama's Chefs Move to Schools initiative, which pairs professional chefs with local schools. Tubman kids were most recently at the White House in February, to help prepare the meal for the 2011 Governors' Dinner, a black-tie affair that was notable in part because it was the first time kids have ever been guest chefs at the White House. (Above: Mrs. Obama speaks to the kids as Kass looks on)

"There’s no way we would get this done without your help," Mrs. Obama told the kids.

What's getting planted for Spring?
That's because the Kitchen Garden has had a facelift as it enters its third year: Each of the 34 different vegetable beds are now in raised boxes, made from wood stained with an unspecified non-toxic dye. Dozens of young plants in little plastic containers accompanied each garden box, awaiting installation: Pak choi, kale, kohlrabi, rhubarb, Swiss chard, arugula; mint; chervil; garlic; and radish. In two special beds in honor of President Thomas Jefferson, some of the third president's favorites were installed: Tennis-ball, Brown Dutch, and Aleppo lettuces; broccoli and purple broccoli; artichokes; and three kinds of cabbage--Savoy, Red, and Early Jersey Wakefield.

"So how many of you guys know what we’re going to plant today?" Mrs. Obama asked.

The kids shouted out the right answers: Spinach. Cauliflower. Peas. Cabbage.

"Beets!" called out one child.

That stopped the First Lady. As someone who has spent plenty of time encouraging kids to expand their palates and "just try" new vegetables--Dr. Seuss's Green Eggs and Ham is among her favorite books to read to kids--both Mrs. Obama and President Obama are notably anti-beet.

In November of 2008, when President-elect Obama's grave dislike of beets was unearthed, it made national headlines. In August of 2010, Mrs. Obama herself revealed that a shared dislike of beets is one of the foundations of the strong Obama marriage, when she told Ladies Home Journal that beets are her "worst nightmare" when it comes to food. The First Lady even had a beet theory.

"I am a believer that there is a beet gene," Mrs. Obama declared. "People who love beets love them and people who hate beets can't stand them. Neither the President nor I have the beet gene."

In the past, beets have been pointedly not planted in the Kitchen Garden, which has grown plenty of other root vegetables: Carrots, radishes, turnips, rutabaga, salsify, parsley root. On hearing that beets were going into the Kitchen Garden, Mrs. Obama turned to Kass, who stood a few feet away.

"Uh-oh. The President doesn’t like beets," Mrs. Obama said, surprised, and laughing.

Kass, laughing, said that all the same, beets were being planted: The chefs had requested it.

"It’s okay. We’re an equal opportunity garden," Mrs. Obama joked.

But a different crop that the chefs had been hoping for didn't make the cut for the Spring Planting: Hops. The White House chefs have become the first-ever presidential home brewers--their White House Honey Ale, made with honey from the Beehive that is right next to the garden--was served at the presidential Super Bowl party. After, there was talk of growing the key beer-making crop in the garden, but it didn't happen during this planting. (Above: Comerford is center, surrounded by fellow White House chefs and kid helpers as Kass supervises)

As the kids continued to call out veggies that would be planted, Mrs. Obama revealed that daughters Malia, 12, and Sasha, 9, are fans of broccoli.

"Malia and Sasha’s favorite -- broccoli," Mrs. Obama said. "Spinach. We’re spinach lovers, too."

Mrs. Obama has previously revealed a First Family love of sweet potatoes, which have grown to astonishing size in the Kitchen Garden--four-pounders were being hauled out of the ground during the 2010 Fall harvest. The First Lady reminded the kids that the Kitchen Garden, which she has credited as one of the inspirations for her childhood obesity campaign, is an important national symbol. (Above: Pastry assistant Susie Morrison, in headband, and Executive Sous Chef Tommy Kurpradit with a helper)

"You guys are helping do something that’s really important to me and that’s be a part of a program that we started here called “Let’s Move,” Mrs. Obama said. "It’s not just about planting good vegetables; it’s about passing the information on."

She urged the kids to be her ambassadors, and spread the word to those who don't have the chance to visit the White House.

"You’ve got family members and other people who need to know what you’re learning," Mrs. Obama said. "So we’re going to want you guys to pass this information on, especially go home and get your parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles to cook some vegetables, to make sure you guys are trying new things." Of course the kids agreed.

Some major news...
But Mrs. Obama, standing in the midst of her iconic garden, didn't reveal to the kids that she's got huge plans of her own to further spread the Let's Move! message. The First Lady didn't tell the kids the major news that would break on the national news wire just moments after the Spring Planting was completed and she'd left the garden: In April of 2012, Mrs. Obama will publish an "inspirational and instructive" book about her experiences with the Kitchen Garden, designed to promote school and community gardens, and healthy eating.

The books will contain recipes, First Family stories, and tips on how people can become advocates with food access initiatives. It's Mrs. Obama's very first book, and the as-yet-untitled tome will be published by Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, the same publishers responsible for President Obama's two best-selling memoirs.

The First Lady received no advance for her deal, and will donate her proceeds to an unnamed charity. Random House will donate an unspecified portion of its proceeds to charity. The First Lady will have the help of a ghostwriter, and photos will be done by a photographer supplied by Crown. The book will appear as a hardback, an e book, and an "enhanced" multimedia e book.

As Mrs. Obama and the kids moved into the crop rows to plant vegetables, the fellow who wrangled her book deal, high-powered Washington attorney Bob Barnett (who also does the President's deals), stood on the sidelines beside Mrs. Obama's communications director, Kristina Schake. Mrs. Obama and her two kid helpers hit a bed of spinach first, taking young plants out of their plastic containers to install in the raised garden box.

Across the garden, the White House chefs and their helpers did the same with other crops, as did Let's Move! Executive Director Robin Schepper and Mrs. Obama's Chief of Staff, Tina Tchen.

The Kitchen Garden is not organic...and the plants are from a "top secret" location...
The seeds and starter plants for the Kitchen Garden, as well as the new box materials and the dirt inside, came from what a White House aide joked is "a top secret" White House green house, in a "top secret" location. The boxes are meant to "clean up" the garden, prevent erosion, and make it easier for inexperienced gardeners to volunteer, according to the aide. (Above: Mrs. Obama and her helper plant spinach)

"Before, people would be stepping on young plants, because they weren't sure if they were weeds, or vegetables," the aide said. "We want to encourage all the staff to volunteer, and this makes it easier, so no one is afraid they're ruining vegetables."

The Kitchen Garden, as a reminder, is not officially organic, but no chemical fertilizers or pesticides are used.

The National Park Service maintains the White House grounds, and the Kitchen Garden, too, doing the bulk of the work, but the White House chefs--and a bevy of volunteers--help with the weeding and do the harvesting. Tuesday mornings are a big time for volunteers in the garden, according to Kass. (Above: Mrs. Obama and her helper plant turnip seeds)

Mrs. Obama and her helpers took on turnips after the spinach, planting seeds for "white globe purple tip" turnips, and then watering these. They planted collards, then moved across the garden to another bed of spinach. Planting the entire garden took just a little more than 45 minutes, with everyone's help.

After, as the First Lady gathered the kids around for a group photo, the sun burst through the clouds, ready to get the new veggies growing. Mrs. Obama and the kids smiled for the many cameras held by the mob of media that was behind the rope line alongside the garden.

The First Lady then walked the kids out of the garden, where they were treated to hot apple cider by waiting White House butlers. Mrs. Obama chatted with the kids, handed out hugs, and then she headed back up to the White House. This time she was walking. Gardening is good exercise, and Mrs. Obama was done for the day. (Above: Mrs. Obama talks veggies one last time)

Above: After the planting, Kass handed out the little green plastic plant containers as "souvenirs" for the kids to take home and use to grow seeds.

*The transcript and video of Mrs. Obama's remarks at the Spring planting event is here. The press release for her forthcoming book is here. More on the boxed beds is here.

*Photos by Eddie Gehman Kohan/